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The Most Known Unknown: Oaklandish

The phenomenon we have come to know as Oaklandish formed in 2000 as an innovative public art campaign to promote civic pride in Oakland’s rich history. Working outside the traditional art establishment, Oaklandish evolved from a loose collective of artists putting up posters on abandoned storefronts to staging large-scale events as public art. “Original Oakland
Charm” became the tagline for an organizing principle based on pride of place and the belief that Oakland has a unique identity worthy of celebration.

Working without permits, government or institutional support, early Oaklandish events tapped into a desire to redefine public space and community engagement. For example, the “guerilla” outdoor movie projections of the Liberation Drive-In screened Oakland-themed films on the city itself. Urban Capture The Flag, team-tag played on city streets, and Salsa by The Lake, an all-ages dance party by Lake Merritt, generated a diverse and rapidly expanding audience eager to participate.

The development of the successful apparel line for which they are so widely recognized came about as Oaklandish formalized its organization and transitioned away from events in public spaces. The practical demands of a legitimate business forced them to realize their mission—the goal of promoting civic pride—in different terms. Relatively inexpensive to produce and buy, T-shirts have become the canvas from which they spread their message. In this way, the private act of buying and wearing a T-shirt becomes a very public support of local art.

The revenue generated from the T-shirt sales goes back to the community in the form of grants through the annual Innovator Awards. Each year, Oaklandish supports fledgling organizations and individuals working in all areas of civic life including the arts, education, technology and business. Additionally, Oaklandish artists design and produce T-shirts for current honorees to generate their own income.

Like other artists of their generation, Oaklandish blurs the line between social activism and cultural engagement, audience and artist, collective identity and private expression. Most important, their story reminds us of the many ways that community is created and nurtured.

Carin Adams, Museum Curatorial Specialist